Combine a defending Stanley Cup champion and a two-time defending NHL scoring champion and what do you get? The 1947-48 Toronto Maple Leafs, a team for the ages.
The Leafs won the Cup in 1947 behind the scoring of centers Ted “Teeder” Kennedy and Syl Apps, a Calder Trophy-winning 27-goal performance by rookie forward Howie Meeker, solid performance by the depth forwards and defensemen, and the play of future Hall of Fame goalie Turk Broda. But owner-general manager Conn Smythe wanted more — another star center who would give him the league’s best 1-2-3 punch down the middle.
Smythe set his sights on Max Bentley of the Chicago Black Hawks, who had led the NHL in scoring in 1945-46 and 1946-47. But despite Bentley’s offense, the Hawks had finished last in the six-team NHL in 1946-47, then lost their first seven games in 1947-48 despite Bentley’s three goals and three assists in six games.
Eye on the Prize
With Bentley in his sights, Smythe came up with an offer the talent-challenged Hawks couldn’t refuse. On Nov. 2, 1947, the Maple Leafs traded a complete forward unit — Gus Bodnar, Gaye Stewart and Bud Poile, known as the “Flying Forts,” — as well as defensemen Bob Goldham and Ernie Dickens. The three forwards had played a key role in the 1947 title; Goldham had been part of championship teams in Toronto dating back to 1942.
In return, Smythe got Bentley, with rookie forward Cy Thomas as a throw-in.
“It is the biggest deal in NHL hockey in a long, long time,” league president Clarence Campbell said, “and only goes to emphasize the worth of such a player as Bentley.”
Though Max Bentley was saddened to leave his brother and linemate Doug Bentley behind, he was embraced by his new team and its fans. The Toronto Star noted that Bentley “only has to move toward the puck and the entire gathering blows straight through the roof.”
With virtually every shift (in the days when teams generally used three lines) centered by a future Hall of Famer, the Maple Leafs rolled to a first-place finish, winning the Prince of Wales Trophy (then given to the regular-season champion) for the first time.
The Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings spent most of the 60-game season battling for first place. Detroit had a two-point lead with four games remaining, but Toronto got two goals from Apps, one from Kennedy and an assist by Bentley in a 5-2 victory against the Boston Bruins at Maple Leaf Gardens on March 13, 1948. The Leafs headed for Chicago and blanked the last-place Black Hawks 3-0 one night later. That win, combined with Boston’s 5-1 victory at Detroit, put Toronto into first place.
Clipping the Wings
The Maple Leafs led the Red Wings by one point entering their season-ending home-and-home weekend series on March 20-21 and clinched first place by winning 5-2 in Toronto on Saturday, with Kennedy scoring two goals, then got a hat trick by Apps on Sunday in a 5-2 win at the Olympia in Detroit to finish with 77 points, five more than the Red Wings.
It was truly a team accomplishment – Broda was the only individual trophy winner, taking home the Vezina Trophy, then awarded to the goalie on the team that allowed the fewest goals during the regular season. He was also voted an NHL First-Team All-Star, the only Toronto player selected to the First Team or Second Team.
Smythe’s push for more strength up the middle paid off. Apps (53 points; 26 goals, 27 assists), Bentley (48 points; 23 goals, 25 assists in 53 games with Toronto) and Kennedy (46 points; 25 goals, 21 assists) were 1-2-3 on the team in scoring and led a balanced offense that saw eight players reach double figures in goals and finish with at least 30 points. Broda played every minute of all 60 games, finishing with 32-15-13 with a 2.38 goals-against average and five shutouts.
The Stanley Cup Playoffs reinforced the wisdom of Smythe’s strength-down-the-middle strategy. Toronto dispatched the third-place Boston Bruins in five games, with the only loss, a 3-2 defeat at Boston, in Game 4. That set up a showdown between the Maple Leafs and Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Final. Toronto had defeated Detroit for the Cup in 1942 and 1945, and the Wings were eager for revenge.
Instead, Toronto swept the best-of-seven series, winning each game by at least two goals. Smythe, who was superstitious, made sure the Stanley Cup was nowhere near the Olympia before Game 4, insisting that it remain in the NHL office in Montreal – as had been the case the previous year. He need not have worried: Toronto completed the sweep by demolishing the Wings 7-2. Kennedy scored two goals, Apps scored one and Bentley chipped in with two assists.
Even Jack Adams, Detroit’s GM, had no doubt that the better team had won, telling Toronto coach Hap Day that, “There was never any doubt about it, from the start to the finish.”
Smythe, for one, thought his ’47-48 Leafs were as good as any team he’d ever seen.
“We had the Murderers Row of hockey, with three 25-goal centre men,” he said, according to The Globe and Mail. “We had good goaltending and a good defense. With that batting order, we were hard to beat. This is the greatest team I ever had. They have never failed me, and for the first time in my life I did not have to give them a pep talk during the final series. I’ve never had a team like this.
Looking back 12 years later, Smythe told the Toronto Daily Star on April 27, 1960, that, “I would like to have that (1947-48) club against any I could name. Of course, I’m not completely unbiased.”
Day: Leafs Had it All
Day told the Daily Star on Jan. 8, 1963, that he thought the 1947-48 team “compares with any club in history. Our centre ice strength emphasizes the kind of club this was. We had Syl Apps, Teeder Kennedy, Max Bentley and Nick Metz. Very few clubs ever had four centremen of their ability. Our defense was also tops. We had Garth Boesch and Bill Barilko on one pair, Gus Mortson and Jim Thomson on the other. They were great. … Then we had Turk Broda in the nets, and there has never been another playoff goalie like the Turk.”
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The Maple Leafs repeated again in 1949, becoming the first modern-era NHL dynasty, despite the retirement of Apps. But that team had to win the Cup after finishing the regular season with a sub-.500 record (22-25 with 13 ties), becoming the last team in league history to do so. The 1947-48 team, in contrast, stands up with any in NHL annals.
Kennedy, who lived long enough to see the dynasties of the Canadiens in the late 1950s and 1970s, as well as the New York Islanders and Edmonton Oilers in the 1980s, had no doubts that the 1947-48 Maple Leafs could have played with any of those teams.
“They don’t mention us too much, do they?” Kennedy said. “But Smythe said, in his opinion — and it wasn’t for publicity — that the 1948 team was the best team that ever played.” (from ‘Ted ‘Teeder’ Kennedy, 83: Legendary Leaf,’ Toronto Star, 08/15/2009)
Longtime NHL writer and editor. Covered first NHL game in 1975 (and hundreds since). Have done several books, hundreds of magazine/newspaper/online stories. Big fan of hockey history.